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What Is a Ring Composition?

Some of William Shakespeare's plays featured elements of ring composition.
John Milton was a relatively more recent user of ring composition.
The Jewish Torah can be said to have a ring composition.
An example of chiasmus includes Havelock Ellis's quote, "Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm."
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Images By: Georgios Kollidas, Georgios Kollidas, Abba Richman, Smithsonian Institution
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2014
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The concept of a ring composition, as used in a narrative, revolves around specific rhetorical techniques related to ancient oral traditions, where a speaker will present various ideas or topics in a sequence, before reaching a kind of crescendo composed of the most important topic or idea; afterward, the speaker will retrace the pattern back to the original starting point. This kind of communication has been used for many centuries to tell stories and relay information. Experts believe it has served various purposes, including a mnemonic element that helps the speaker remember how to proceed with a narrative.

Many examples of ring composition are found in classical texts. These include Greek and Roman writings as well as elements of the Hebrew Bible. For example, in the Jewish Torah, or first five books of the conventional Christian Bible, a narrative proceeding from the book of Exodus to the book of Leviticus uses a kind of ring composition to touch on various aspects of the relationship of humans to the divine.

A ring composition is also often referred to as a chiasmus, or a chiastic structure. This word from the Greek refers to the ordering of various ideas. Historians and other academics will often point to many examples of this type of communication in literature and oral narrative tradition.

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Although ring composition was useful in many ancient texts, some more modern authors have also used it extensively. One example is in the epic poetry of John Milton -- in particular, the creation on Paradise lost, where these kinds of structures complement other deliberately formed patterns of language. Ring composition elements are also present in some of Elizabethan poet William Shakespeare’s plays, and in the book of Mormon, a relatively modern religious composition.

In addition to its use as a mnemonic device, the phenomenon of ring composition can complement other aspects of conventional poetry or literature. Many see the application of this type of technique as part of structural composition for a longer work of fiction, poetry, or other narrative. It is also useful in literary criticism for students of ancient or modern literature. As an additional point, when this technique is referred to as chiasmus, it relates to another common semantical idea in Western religion, or Christianity in particular, where the Greek letter “chi,” and its "X" structure, is associated with Christ, and the cross of the messianic crucifixion.

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